With plenty of museums, galleries and eateries, the bohemian area of Samcheong-dong is the perfect place to explore Seoul’s historical and cultural hotspots, discovers Soyoung Kang
1. Gyeongbokung (Palace)
The palace, in the north of the city, was first established in 1394 by King Taejo. It has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, and today consists of a complex of buildings open to the public. Take subway line 3 (orange line) and alight at Ankuk station (exit 1). One of the most important buildings in the complex is Guenjeongjeon, the throne room and main hall where the king conducted state affairs. At the rear of the grounds, cross the bridge over a small lake to Hyangwonjeong, a hexagonal pavilion built in 1867 that typifies the beauty of ancient royal architecture. Also part of the palace complex is the National Folk Museum, the largest of its type in Korea, which houses 135,000 historic artefacts. Behind the palace is the Cheongwadae, where the president of Korea resides. Open Tues-Fri, 9am-7pm, March-October; 9am-5pm November-February. Tours conducted daily in English (http://gbg.cha.go.kr). Entrance KRW3,000 (£1.60).
2. CafE OIOI
A 10-minute walk north, along the main street of Samcheongdonggil, will take you to Cafe OIOI. At first sight, it might remind you of Damien Hirst’s now closed Pharmacy in London. There is a graphic on the white wall mimicking the diagram of how to use the oxygen mask on a plane (the former owner, a graphic designer, is thought to have been inspired during a flight to the Maldives). The cafe has a fabulous range of coffees from around the world, from Colombia to Ethiopia, and it’s no coincidence that the current owner is an espresso specialist. The coffee beans are roasted on site and served at 80-82 degrees after careful hand-dripping. Forget nearby Starbucks or Coffee Bean: neither can give this place a run for its money. 124-2 Samcheong-dong. Open 11am-2am daily. Tel +82 2 723 1259.
3. Kukje Gallery
With its many galleries and museums, Samcheong-dong is popular with art lovers. Kukje, a contemporary venue that opened in 1982, is situated across the main street from the Folk Museum. Don’t be surprised to see a statue of a woman in red, in a running pose, on the roof of the building. The Walking Woman on the Roof is an art installation by the American artist Jonathan Borofsky. The gallery has introduced world-acclaimed artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Anthony Caro and Joseph Beuys to local audiences, as well as significant Korean artists. 59-1 Sogyeok-Dong, Jongno-gu. Open 10am-6pm Tues-Sat; 10am-5pm Sun, closed on Mondays and public holidays. Visitors must make a reservation: tel +82 2 735 8449, kukje.org.
4. Jewellery Museum
Never say that jewellery is only for ladies; a visit to the World Jewelry [sic] Museum is just as interesting and powerful an experience for men. The three-storey building, which opened two years ago under museum director Lee Kang-won, houses a huge collection. The first piece to grab your attention is the dominating Amber Wall, which features displays of amber ornaments including 120cm prayer beads from Somalia dating back to the 19th century. Other artefacts include bracelets and anklets of hunters, holy crosses from Africa, heavy-looking Turkish rings, and the headdress of a Mongolian bride. One of the most impressive exhibits is the golden Muisca Raft. This displays the adornments worn long ago by the indigenous people of Colombia, when gold was worn by political leaders and used in religious ceremonies as a sacrifice or offering. The modern jewellery room, on the second floor, is also worth seeing. 75-3 Hwa-dong. Open Tues-Sun 10am-7pm. Tel +82 2 730 1610, wjmuseum.com. Entrance KRW5,000 (£2.70).
5. Kyobo bookstore
This bookshop is in the basement of Kyobo Insurance building, in the centre of Seoul’s old town. From here, you can see the prominent Gwanghwamun Gate, which leads to the Gyeongbok Palace. This is one of the biggest bookstores in Korea and has a good foreign-book section. The bookshelves measure 25km long, so give yourself plenty of time to browse. On the same site is the music shop Hot Tracks. The bookstore is near Gwangwhamun subway station on line 5 (violet line), or you can walk it in 15 minutes by heading back to the main street and going south. 1 Chongno 1-ga. Tel +82 2 397 3643 (Foreign Book Section).
6. Cook ‘n’ Heim
Samcheong-dong has a pleasant, traditional atmosphere, thanks to the faded roofs and brick walls of the hanoks, the old-style Korean houses that are common in this area. For a bite to eat, head back up the main street (it’s a long walk but a five-minute taxi ride) to Cook ‘n’ Heim, a modern gallery and restaurant housed in an old hanok. Excellent Korean cuisine is also available in this area, but Cook ‘n’ Heim excels at modern international food. A good stop-off for lunch or dinner, it serves freshly home-made burgers and Italian cuisine. All the dishes are preceded by a small dish of tomato, peeled and lightly dressed with olive oil and vinegar. Every night, after sunset, old movies, such as Gone with the Wind, or Romeo and Juliet, are shown on an outdoor screen. Price for a set menu, such as soup and a burger, including wine and coffee, costs around KRW20,000 (£11). 63-28 Samcheong-dong. Open 12pm-10pm daily. Tel +82 2 733 1109.